How Chicago Became
the Gateway to the West
A review of Cronon’s Nature's Metropolis
My review of an essential book for anyone interested in Illinois history, economics, and agriculture. (I also reviewed it for Illinois Times here.) The many books CE reviewed for its businessperson readers were not self-help manuals—astonishing.
Reviewed: Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon. W. W. Norton & Company, 1991
In the last century, Chicago astonished the world and in the process helped remake it. The story of the city's growth from outpost to industrial colossus is well known, if not always understood. A generation of capitalists obliterated distance, reordered whole ecosystems and even reorganized time itself to suit the purposes of a new mass market. High-school history to the contrary, it was not hogs and wheat and steel that made Chicago great but new ideas about how to make, move and market these commodities.
This American saga has not yet found its Homer, but it now may have its Herodotus in Yale professor William Cronon, author of Nature s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. In it, Cronon attempts a synthesis of the environmental and the economic approach to history. He explains how, in the latter half of the last century, the market transformed "first nature"—the unspoiled virgin countryside of the 19th century West—into "second nature"— a countryside that has been mowed, sprayed, subdivided and fenced into an essentially industrial landscape.
"A sizable share of the new city's wealth was the wealth of nature stolen, consumed, and converted to human ends," Cronon writes. He quotes an old lumberman grown rich from raiding the woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota who complained that Americans "assume that they have made themselves great, whereas their greatness has been in large measure thrust upon them by a bountiful providence."
Chicago didn't just plunder the countryside, however; it transformed it. Cronon explains that the relationship between city and country is reciprocal, at least in economic terms. In the process of taking wealth from its rural hinterland, Chicago made new wealth possible by providing a market for what could be harvested there.
The familiar resentment expressed toward Chicago by its small-town Midwestern neighbors is incited by this highly unequal partnership. Downstaters resented (often with reason) the control that the city's bankers and grain traders and butchers held over them, but perhaps overlooked the fact that without those markets they would be backwaters—as, sadly, many of them are becoming again today.
The faster that Chicago grew, the faster it created new rail lines, communication systems and capital. But while the forests have been felled, the steel mills largely are quiet and the working docks of the Chicago River have been converted into night clubs, today's Chicago is not wholly finished with the economic exploitation of its countryside. The subdivision and sale of its now redundant agricultural hinterland as housing sites represents that hinterland's transformation into what future historians may come to describe as a third nature.
The city boasted no natural advantages that were substantially richer than those of a dozen other cities that pretended to the title of Gateway City to the West; its physical setting was swampy, its river port at best adequate and the only mineral wealth of note was rock to build with.
True, Chicago's location was an early advantage. But a bevy of innovations quickly rendered place less and less relevant to the economy of cities. (O'Hare Airport may be the last of Chicago's "biggest" and "busiest" that owes itself to geographic location.) For example, refrigeration made it possible for Chicago meat packers to build a supply system that extended across half a continent.
"Geography no longer mattered very much except as a problem in management," Cronon writes. "The cattle might still graze amid forgotten buffalo wallows in central Montana, and the hogs might still devour their feedlot corn in Iowa, but from the corporate point of view they could just as well have been anywhere else."
The ecology of money was as vital as the ecology of nature to Chicago's expansion, according to Cronon. The reason Chicago became the Gateway City to the West instead of, say, St. Louis, was because Chicago stood at the terminus of a chain of canals and railroads (and business relationships) that connected it to the banks and boardrooms of New York and Europe. St. Louis meanwhile—though better placed in other respects—was dependent on its crucial early years on a river that led south to New Orleans and the southern hemisphere.
Nature's Metropolis has won universal praise as a minor masterpiece of its kind. Cronon reminds us that history used to be the province of writers as well as statisticians. (Chicago's meat packers, he notes in a typical flourish, "harvested the winter's cold and suspended the wheel of the seasons [in] the chilled factories by the stockyards.") The author makes even arcana such as credit flows intelligible and his account of how the grain trade was transformed when corn and wheat ceased to be bought and sold in sacks is a marvel of exposition.
There is a temptation to read such a history as a cookbook, looking for recipes for economic development. Cronon offers no simple suggestions, but even an alderman could draw some parallels useful for policy. Increasingly, the commodities that now make up the city's trade are unnatural resources—money, ideas, services that can be performed almost anywhere; this most remarkable of frontier cities now functions in a world in which every place is its frontier. (There is no reason for the Japanese to send their money to Schaumburg to buy cellular phones, the way New York once sent its money to Chicago to buy beef, except that Schaumburg houses the smart people who know how to design them.)
The pine woods and prairies of tomorrow's Chicago are its own neighborhoods. The question is whether today’s city is smart enough to harvest the brains and ambition of its own people. ■